Leadership profile: A conversation with James A. Attwood Jr. J.D./M.B.A. ’84

As the law school’s Campaign for the Third Century kicks off Oct. 23, it finds itself in very able hands: One of its co-chairs is Jim Attwood J.D./M.B.A. ’84, a managing director at The Carlyle Group, a global alternative asset manager with $200 billion under management. Since 2000, Attwood, a member of the HLS Dean’s Advisory Board, has directed Carlyle’s private equity investments in the global telecommunications and media industries, and more recently in technology as well. After graduating from Harvard Law and Harvard Business schools, he became an investment banker at Goldman, Sachs & Co. He next served as executive vice president for strategy, development and planning at GTE Corp. before assuming a similar role at Verizon Communications. He was a key player in several industry-shaping transactions, including the merger of Bell Atlantic and GTE (creating Verizon) and the creation of Verizon Wireless.

“HLS trains you to be more than a lawyer," says James A. Attwood Jr. "It trains you to be a leader, a contributing member of society at many levels.”

Credit: Beth Perkins “HLS trains you to be more than a lawyer,” says James A. Attwood Jr. “It trains you to be a leader, a contributing member of society at many levels.”

What is your scope at The Carlyle Group?

I direct our firm’s private equity investment activities in telecommunications, media and technology. While I’m not practicing law, I certainly use what I learned at HLS.

Why focus on this sector?

I got involved in the telecommunications industry in the 1990s because it was a fascinating area that was undergoing a period of rapid change, both legally and structurally. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 fundamentally changed the rules of the road and created a lot more opportunities for new entrants and investment. That coincided with an explosion in technology in the mid-’90s: The World Wide Web came to be, which created access to the Internet for the masses. That, combined with higher-speed data networks and the increasing ubiquity of mobile devices, created a potent witch’s brew that has carried forth to today to create this digital world we now live in. I was involved in the creation of Verizon and Verizon Wireless, and have stayed active in the sector as an investor ever since.

What do you enjoy most about it?

The sector is intellectually very stimulating. Tech­nology is literally changing the world we live in. I enjoy looking at new investment opportunities, but quite frankly what’s most enjoyable and fun is working with our portfolio company management teams to help them improve their businesses and create value.

What do you see coming next in this arena?

I think we’ll see change continue to accelerate. We’ll also see the further evolution of intelligence in software: It’s extraordinary to see what software is now able to accomplish that used to be the province of hardware. Penetration of mobile devices and Internet access will continue to rise. Today there are almost 3 billion Internet users and 7 billion mobile phone users worldwide. More people access the Internet today from their mobile devices than from computers. The number of people connected to the Net globally will be much bigger in five years, particularly in developing countries. Developing countries are leapfrogging what we went through in this country, where it was first fixed line networks, then mobile. In developing countries, it’s mobile first.

What is your fondest memory of HLS?

I met my wife, Leslie, at HLS. We were both in the Class of ’84, and we were in Bob Clark’s [’72] first-year corporations class. She caught my eye: She was the cutest girl in class. Leslie is retired from the law now, but has many interests, particularly in food safety and healthy eating. She is incredibly knowledgeable about this whole area. As an aside, Leslie’s third-year paper adviser at HLS was a young professor named Martha Minow.

How was the law school different from Harvard Business School?

The students and environment couldn’t have been more different. The law students were generally smarter and had higher IQs, while the business students had higher EQs [emotional quotients]. They were less academic but more socially comfortable, more practical, and networked a lot more.

How has your law degree been helpful to you?

A lot of people say law school taught them to think deductively and logically, taught them to be analytical. As an undergrad at Yale, I majored in applied mathematics, and I have a master’s in statistics, so I sort of already had that. I did learn a tremendous amount about society from law school—the rules established by our society and how we use them. My legal education has been incredibly valuable over the course of my career by enabling me to understand what is important and what isn’t in a whole host of transactional contexts: contracts, IP, legal proceedings, tax, corporate structure, etc.

Why are you involved in the Campaign for the Third Century?

Harvard Law School is really a unique institution. Obviously, it occupies a rarefied spot in the history of legal education, but beyond that, look at the impact it has had on society at large. I really don’t think any other institution comes close to it.

I started to get back involved in the law school when Elena [Kagan ’86] was dean. She did a wonderful job of giving the law school a bit more of a soul and bit more of a heart, and I think the school was in need of that. She also led the effort to build the new building, which has had a profound impact on the campus and students. The experience students are having today is fundamentally different from when we were there in the ’80s, when I don’t think many people were happy as students. Now when I visit HLS, there seem to be a lot more students happy to be there. People used to come to campus, go to classes, then leave. Now they come to campus, go to classes, and stay. To me, what’s happened in the last decade or so at HLS is remarkable, and I really want to be part of continuing the journey for the school in a positive way.

What do you hope for the school’s future?

What the school needs to recognize, and they’ve done this to some degree, is that HLS trains you to be more than a lawyer—it trains you to be a leader, a contributing member of society at many levels. Recognizing the broader impact that an HLS education has on society is really important. Harvard Law School attracts the most extraordinary talent, gives them a great education, and then they go off and do amazing things. It’s important for people to understand contract law and torts but equally important for them to understand how to use the law and the legal process to promote many societal objectives that are outside the strict definition of law. Leslie and I have been supportive of public interest fellowships at HLS and of easing the financial burden for those who want to take the public interest track after law school. Giving them the ability to do that sooner rather than having to pay back student loans is important.

What do you do in your spare time?

We like to go to Martha’s Vineyard, where we happen to be neighbors of Alan Dershowitz. I am a wine collector, and I love music—all varieties, from classical to jazz, folk and rock.

Who’s your favorite rock band?

I’m a big Grateful Dead fan. Last summer I saw all five of the “Fare Thee Well” shows, three in Chicago and two in Santa Clara, celebrating the band’s 50th anniversary.

You’re a Deadhead?

[He laughs.] I also chair an important music organization here in New York, Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. Caramoor was historically oriented toward classical music, but recently we have expanded the programming to include folk, roots and jazz. In fact, we have just begun a collaboration with Jazz at Lincoln Center for our jazz program. It’s all very fun.